Do you enjoy the works of playwrights like Oscar Wilde and Nöel Coward, but wish their plays had a little more adultery? Then Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill is the play for you. Never having seen the show, I wasn’t sure what to expect last night, except what I could glean from the poster. What I got was a newer, slightly raunchier version of the classic English drawing room play, which I enjoyed greatly. Sean Elias, the artistic director of Iron Crow, said in his curtain speech that even though Cloud 9 is 40-years-old, it is still relevant today. I couldn’t agree more. Themes like sexuality and gender roles are more relevant now than ever, and Dr. Natka Bianchini’s direction highlighted these themes to excellent effect.
Cloud 9 looks at the life of an English woman, Betty, and her family. We first meet Betty as a young mother in Act I in British-occupied Africa in 1880. Act II picks up 25 years later for the characters in London, 1980 [Note: While the play jumps 100 years into the future, we are told that only 25 years have passed for the characters]. Betty is now a single grandmother, and we see the non-traditional family her children create for themselves.
Through these two time periods, we see an interesting contrast. In the first act, no one is what they appear to be, everyone else knows it, but everything is talked around in subtext. And though there is a war going on and relationships are in jeopardy, there are no real consequences. The first act was also exaggerated nicely in the style of classic high comedy. Bianchini crafted wonderful moments of emotional slaloms, quick turns from one feeling to another, which were comedic and illustrated the themes being presented.
The second act was more grounded. The characters actually talk to each other, and everything feels more real. The characters begin taking action for themselves, even if it takes them out of the safety of tradition. It is quite a shift from the closeted sexuality of the first act to “You’re gay, aren’t you?” in the second act. However, it is this new openness that brings into focus how restricted some aspects of life still are, even in a whole new era. That is what connects Cloud 9 to our present.
Sexuality and gender roles are somehow still a controversial topic of discussion. Lin’s worry over whether to give her daughter toy guns or dresses is wonderfully relevant to anyone thinking of having kids now with today’s awareness of the sexuality and gender spectrum. This play remains of this time, for this audience.
The cast of Cloud 9 was impressive, to say the least, with each actor playing at least two different characters in the show, some playing roles of completely different ages and genders to their own, and all of them speaking in dialect.
The cast was made up by Matthew Lindsay Payne (Clive, Cathy), Tavish Forsyth (Betty, Edward), Nick Fruit (Joshua, Gerry), Barbara Madison Hauck (Edward, Betty), Kristina Szilagyi (Maud, Victoria), Kathryne Daniels (Ellen/Mrs. Saunders, Lin), and Jonas David Grey (Harry Bagley, Martin). As a group, the cast brought energy and respect to these characters. Though genders were swapped in some roles, it was not treated as farce or drag; they were three-dimensional characters with importance.
Each actor did such great work, a whole review could be written for each. They all showed outstanding range in their different characters. Forsyth was quite graceful in his ladies attire as Betty. I appreciated that he kept her voice in his normal range and didn’t go into falsetto to “talk like a girl.” Payne’s accent as Clive was excellent with terrific melody, and he had some nice moments of seriousness and grounding in an exaggerated act. Hauck played the perfect little boy. Her Edward had all the attitude and excitement expected of a bored, young boy.
Some of my favorite moments of the show were Daniels and Szilagyi as Lin and Victoria shouting offstage to their kids on the playground. The moments were so recognizable, and the interruption was hysterical. Fruit showed great contrast in his characters from Act I to Act II, going from the stiff, cruel Joshua to the laid-back allure of Gerry, and his monologue as Gerry was really fun.
Visually, the set, designed by Megan Suder, makes a dramatic statement from the moment you walk in the theatre. There is an enormous, Union Jack flag hanging upstage, paired with a simple set of a platform, seating, and two screens. This certainly set the tone, and there was so much going on with the characters that the simple set allowed the action to breathe. A completely new tone was set for the second act. The pristine Union Jack was swapped for a dirty, tattered one and the veranda was changed into a park. The scene was effectively set without cluttering up the stage.
The costumes were also quite effective. Heather C. Jackson, the costume designer, did an excellent job wordlessly demonstrating the time periods in the two acts. In Act I, the ladies’ dresses had lovely detail, and simply an added jacket showed Daniels’s character changes. In Act II, the costumes were more realistic, with different outfits for different scenes, which went nicely with the more realistic style of the second act.
Alec Lawson’s lighting design was mostly subtle, with small changes when the shutters were opened or between scenes. But these small changes were important to communicate the time of day. There was a very not-so-subtle moment in the second act where the light on the flag pulsed in time to Victoria’s chanting. It was a moment of
surrealism amidst realism, but it suited the moment well. For a moment, Victoria, Edward, and Lin are taken out of the moment to a spiritual place before losing grip on that and coming back to reality, and the lighting matched that.
I’m always impressed when the actors in a show have quality accents or dialects. They are a difficult thing to do well, and an easy thing to spot when done poorly. Teresa Spencer, the dialect coach, did a great job with this cast. The dialects were consistent across the board, and throughout the show, and the cast switched dialects seamlessly from Act I to Act II.
Cloud 9 perfectly fits with Iron Crow’s season theme of Identity, and it fits perfectly within the social climate of 2018. All of the elements of acting, design, and direction came together into a production worth talking about. I not only recommend this show, but I recommend you grab a coffee or a drink with your friends after to discuss it.
Running Time: Two hours with a 10-minute intermission.